Telstra Nighthawk M1 Review: The need for speed

Alex Kidman 21 April 2017

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Telstra’s Nighthawk M1 doesn’t quite live up to its lofty speed promises, but it’s still an incredibly capable hotspot device.

We first went hands-on with Telstra’s Nighthawk M1 some months ago at the device’s official launch, where Telstra was keen to show off its extreme speed chops. It’s powered by Qualcomm’s x16 LTE modem, giving it the potential speed chops to burn through up to 1Gbps of data under the ideal conditions.

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Even Telstra itself was quick to point out that while that was the top speed theoretically possible, users should instead expect between 5-300Mbps in real world usage. Telstra’s demonstrations of the M1 were encouraging, but the only way to really test out a product like this is to see how it performs in the real world. Not only in the immediate period following its release when few users would be pushing the capabilities of Telstra’s gigabit-capable network, but for an extended period throughout different locations.

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Telstra Nighthawk M1: Design

While it has had a few lower-cost ZTE hotspots on its books over the years, Telstra’s primary producer of hotspots in the premium space has long been Netgear, and the Nighthawk M1 is most definitively a Netgear product. That’s not to say that it looks like any Netgear hotspot that preceded it.

Out is the smaller almost-zippo-lighter sized hotspot of old in favour of something that most closely resembles the newer Apple TV in size. It measures in at 105.5x105.5x20.35mm, which means that unless you’re still rocking Hammer pants you’re not going to be able to easily slip it into your pocket without some discomfort. Believe me, I tried just that with the M1 and a pair of jeans, and it wasn’t pretty.

That larger design has allowed Netgear to equip the Nighthawk M1 with a 2.4 inch colour LCD display panel. In an era of 6+ inch smartphones that might not seem like such a big detail, but when you consider the tiny monochrome displays that used to grace its routers, it’s a big step forward in easy legibility for incoming messages or if you want to quickly share your SSID password without having to announce it to a room. The Nighthawk M1 also incorporates simple visual levels on each side of the display to show your usage and battery life at a glance, which is very handy.

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Telstra Nighthawk M1: Why you’d want one

  • Huge speed potential: The headline feature of the Nighthawk M1 is without a doubt that 1Gbps potential for the network. It’s still relatively early days for Telstra’s gigabit network, which means you’ll have to hunt and peck to actually find coverage, but in terms of long term suitability for a range of mobile data uses the Nighthawk M1 should be a good router not only for today but for numerous years to come. In essence, it’s a gateway product to Telstra’s 5G future.
  • Exceptional battery life: Being able to connect quickly is great, but not if the battery conks out after only a short run at, say, 4K video streaming. The larger size of the Nighthawk M1 allows it to fit a 5040mAh battery that gives it exceptional battery stamina. Netgear’s claim is that it’s suitable for "all day" battery life is an entirely feasible one, but what this also means is that if you do use the Nighthawk M1 as a purely in-transit hotspot between office and home that you can run it for multiple days without fussing about a recharge.
  • Media server capabilities: The Nighthawk M1 is primarily sold as a hotspot for Internet connectivity, but it’s also a fully capable router, and that includes acting as a tiny NAS via its microSD or USB ports. That could cover anything from media serving to simple file sharing via its 2.4 GHz WiFi 802.11 b/g/n or 5Ghz WiFi 802.11a/n/ac networks.
  • Doubles as a battery pack: While the integrated 5040mAh battery gives the Nighthawk M1 plenty of battery life by itself as a hotspot, it’s perfectly content to share its power with others via the integrated USB port. If you’re using a phone that consistently dies out by the end of the day, this could be a godsend.
  • Share to up to 20 devices: The Nighthawk M1 supports Wi-Fi access to up to 20 devices at once. That’s going to slice its available bandwidth up rather thinly, but if you’re after a device to run a larger number of devices, this could be quite handy.

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Telstra Nighthawk M1: Why you might not want one

  • Very bulky: The Nighthawk M1 is like no mobile router that has come before it, but that includes its relatively immense size. Where previous hotspots could easily slip into a pocket, the Nighthawk M1 is far better suited to slip into a bag or purse, which significantly limits its portability.
  • Ordinary real world speeds: The hook for the Nighthawk M1 is that it combines multiple frequencies to push out its data quite so rapidly. That should lead to much faster download speeds if you’re within a gigabit enabled area, and, as per Telstra, even improved reception in slightly shakier non-gigabit regions. We’ve tested the Nighthawk M1 all across the greater Sydney region, and we’ve got to say that we can’t quite see this in action outside Telstra's labs. In areas with poor Telstra reception the Nighthawk M1 was no better or worse than any other connection we could manage on the same network. In supposedly good areas we generally topped out at around 50Mbps on average. That’s nothing to sneeze at and probably good enough for your needs, but it’s only a fraction even of Telstra’s own up-to-300Mbps claims.
  • Inevitable wireless drop in speed: Wireless data transmission is necessarily lossy. It’s the nature of radio waves and the relationship between signal and noise, but what this means for any mobile hotspot is that you’ll lose some data quality along the way. To test this, we pitted the Nighthawk M1 against the Samsung Galaxy S8, which uses the exact same Qualcomm x16 LTE modem within it. The location for testing was Sydney’s Hyde Park, having been advised by Telstra that this was a good reception area for gigabit-quality mobile data. Here’s how the two devices compared across five test locations within Hyde park, connecting to the same speedtest.net server in every instance:
    Speedtest.net download results (Mbps)
    DeviceTelstra Nighthawk M1Samsung Galaxy S8
    Hyde Park Location 114.534.32
    Hyde Park Location 215.852.96
    Hyde Park Location 334.6754.19
    Hyde Park Location 430.4640.25
    Hyde Park Location 536.43134.25

    In every single test the Galaxy S8 outpaced the Nighthawk M1, sometimes by a considerable margin. If you’re able to connect the M1 via Ethernet to a laptop this does reduce markedly as you’d expect. Still if your interest is in raw speed, you’re inevitably going to lose some along the way.

  • Faster data equals higher mobile bills: It’s an inevitability that if you can access mobile data more rapidly, you’ll burn through your quota more quickly. Our real world tests do show that you’re not going to do your entire quota over in seconds because you won’t hit top speed all the time, you’re still going to have to watch the integrated usage meter carefully to avoid blowing out your mobile data budget.

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Who is it best suited for? What are my alternatives?

Mobile hotspot products are arguably the best match for business users who need that kind of continuity of data. The practical reality for many consumers will be that it’s simpler and easier to just set up your existing smartphone as an ad-hoc hotspot as needs require rather than running a separate hotspot device.

Telstra has shifted its mobile hotspot portfolio markedly since the introduction of the Nighthawk M1, depending on your desire for a contract or prepaid device. On the contract side of the broadband fence the Nighthawk M1 is your only choice aside from the USB-connected Telstra 4GX USB + Wi-Fi Plus if you prefer creating a hotspot from the side of your laptop.

The Nighthawk M1 can be purchased outright if you prefer and matched with a prepaid data plan, and in the prepaid space Telstra offers a $79 Telstra Pre Paid 4GX Wi-Fi with Car Kit, $99 Telstra Pre-Paid 4GX Wi-Fi Plus With Battery or $109 Telstra Pre Paid 4GX Wi-Fi Pro to compete with the Nighthawk M1. None of those devices have the battery heft or 1Gbps technical capability of the Nighthawk M1, but if all you want is basic mobile data connectivity using Telstra’s 4GX network, they should do the trick.

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Where can I get it?

The Telstra Nighthawk M1 is available to purchase outright for $360 or on a range of Telstra Mobile Broadband plans over 24 months. Here’s how Telstra’s different Nighthawk M1 plans compare:

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Telstra Nighthawk M1: Specifications

Telstra Nighthawk M1
Connectivity1Gbps download, 150Mbps upload LTE CAT 16 4-band CA and 4x4 MIMO
FrequenciesLTE/4GX 700/900/1800/2100/2600 MHz 3G 850/900/1900/2100 MHz
Wi-FiFull Dual-Band/Dual-Concurrent Wi-Fi Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n 2.4Ghz 802.11a/n/ac 5Ghz
PortsEthernet, USB A, USB C, microSD, TS-9 antenna connector (x2)
Battery5040mAh removable
Display2.4in LCD
Size105.5 (L) x 105.5 (W) x 20.35 (H) mm
Weight240 g (with battery)
RRP$360 or on contract

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At Telstra’s launch of its LTE Gigabit network and the Nighthawk M1 hotspot, I had the chance for some brief hands-on time with the new hotspot. Telstra also ran a number of demonstrations to show off what its latest hotspot is capable of. This is by no means a full review, because that would require testing in real world to fully qualify its capabilities. We’re waiting on a review unit to do just that, so stay tuned.

Telstra Nighthawk M1: Upsides

  • It’s incredibly fast: This is naturally the Nighthawk M1’s key selling point. In one single test Telstra was able to demonstrate speedtest download speeds peaking at 900Mbps with uploads hitting over 100Mbps. That’s well and above anything in the market by a significant factor. It’s world leading technology, given that Telstra’s the first to implement gigabit LTE on its network. Telstra demonstrated this with comparative file transfers from a CAT6 device, where the Nighthawk M1 was easily the victor, as well as multiple simultaneous 4K VR streams to Google Pixel XL phones.
  • Support for up to 20 devices: Telstra’s demonstrations peaked at just a handful of devices serving up a mix of file transfers and 4K VR streaming, but if you had business needs for a decent number of devices, or you just own a lot of consumer gear that you want online, the Nighthawk M1 should be able to service them all.
  • Upload isn’t ignored: While internet speeds are and likely will remain asynchronous for most of us, because we all tend to consume far more than we create, it’s great to see a device that’s capable of up to 150Mbps uploads. If you’re a heavy YouTuber, or just someone who wants to stream a few illicit minutes from the concert you’re at, that much headroom is quite welcome.
  • It’s a quite capable device: Gigabit LTE alone could have been the Nighthawk M1’s selling point, but it’s also equipped with dual band 802.11ac Wi-Fi as well as bi-directional ethernet. That means that not only could you tether an device that lacks Wi-Fi to the M1, but also you could use a hotel or other ethernet connection to act as your internet provider while travelling, still servicing devices through the Nighthawk M1’s network without using your actual mobile data. USB A and C as well as microSD also add media streaming capabilities, just to put the icing on the cake.

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Telstra Nighthawk M1: Downsides

  • Data costs could hit you heavily: The key issue that the Nighthawk M1 is likely to have for most users is that it makes it entirely feasible to burn through large quantities of data quite quickly. Telstra says it will announce new mobile broadband plans in the next fortnight that include the Nighthawk M1, and while that may reduce the bill shock, it’s not likely to suddenly change its data charging strategy much. The Nighthawk M1 will give you real-time data usage figures, which should lessen bill shock and allow you to use your quota over time, but that’s perhaps going to leave you simply not going online because you can’t afford to even faster than before.
  • You won’t actually hit Gigabit speeds: Even Telstra’s own demonstrations of a single device hit 900Mbps, and that’s on a network with practically no devices on it. Once you’re sharing the network with everyone else, expect speeds to drop markedly. Telstra’s own advice on the Nighthawk M1 expects speeds between 5-300Mbps. It’s definitely covering its bases with that kind of massive range, but still, don’t buy this if you expect a consistent 1Gbps throughput. You won’t get it.
  • It’s bulky: The Nighthawk M1 does pack a lot of capability, as well as a 5040mAh battery into its frame, but that means that it’s quite large. Classic hotspots tended to be the size of a packet of playing cards, but the Nighthawk M1 is closer to an Apple TV in terms of size. Telstra’s statement on this was that it would still slip into a jacket pocket, but you’d need to be a larger person for that to be true.
  • No USB C charging of devices: The Nighthawk M1 does support jump charging external devices, but only via its USB A port. It charges in through its USB C port, and you can use the same port for external data streaming, but not for charging any external device.

Telstra Nighthawk M1: Early verdict

Gigabit LTE is a solid stepping stone towards the 5G future, and it’s extremely encouraging to see Telstra quite literally leading the world in rolling it out as a service via the Nighthawk M1. The key issue for most users is likely to be that data cost, and we’ll have to wait and see how much Telstra charges for its plans when it announces them directly.

The Nighthawk M1 itself will go on sale through Telstra outright for $360 unlocked, or via plans in mid-February 2017.

Telstra Nighthawk M1: Specifications

Telstra Nighthawk M1
Connectivity1Gbps download, 150Mbps upload LTE CAT 16 4-band CA and 4x4 MIMO
FrequenciesLTE/4GX 700/900/1800/2100/2600 MHz 3G 850/900/1900/2100 MHz
Wi-FiFull Dual-Band/Dual-Concurrent Wi-Fi Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n 2.4Ghz 802.11a/n/ac 5Ghz
PortsEthernet, USB A, USB C, microSD, TS-9 antenna connector (x2)
Battery5040mAh removable
Display2.4in LCD
Size105.5 (L) x 105.5 (W) x 20.35 (H) mm
Weight240 g (with battery)
RRP$360 or on contract

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